When I recently spotted the title in a science journal, my first thought was: Huh? (Hessian for Whaaaaat????) I understand the individual words, but I don’t know what they mean together.
I remember an episode when my brother happened to be standing in my office and overheard me talking to a colleague about a current IT project. When the colleague had left the room, my brother asked: “What were you actually talking about? I didn’t understand a word. What kind of gibberish was that?” He is a lawyer and therefore at home in his own language.
That’s what happened to me at high school when I overheard a philosophical dispute during a Religious Education lesson (!) about liberation theology in South America between my classmate Stephan and our teacher. What my classmate said there prompted me to ask him if he could repeat it for those of lesser intellect. Stephan is now a philosophy professor at a prestigious German university.
In my spare time, I like to occupy myself with philosophy and physics. There are texts that enthral me also because I can understand them immediately. And at othertimes I feel like I did at high school: I understand nothing. Nada. Niente. And I try hard!!!
Of course I did read the article with the above title.1 But by the time Schrödinger’s cat was mentioned – you remember, that’s the one that can be both alive and dead in its box – I was out of it. What does this Schrödinger’s cat have to do in or with a computer? And what, please, is a second time dimension? I am not always on good terms with my first time dimension! And now a second one?
I have been wondering for a quite a while whether foreign words are absolutely necessary? For some years now, I have been particularly careful to avoid them in spoken language. I admit that I don’t always succeed. I, too, have a language that can exclude people.
How does a language sound that explains complicated issues in such a way that I have a chance of understanding the content?
Here are two examples:
Stephen Fry, a brilliant English actor, has been writing books for years on a wide variety of subjects, such as the ancient Greeks, the Seven Deadly Sins, homosexuality or neurobiology. I am impressed by his works because I get a lot of information in a language that reaches me. This language is by no means simple, but it is easy to understand.
I have enjoyed listening to Hans-Peter Dürr’s lectures on YouTube2. This German physicist (now deceased) worked for Heisenberg and later had his own chair in Munich. Among other things, he succeeded Werner Heisenberg as managing director of the Max Planck Institute in the same place.
In addition to his research on quantum physics, he made it his task to explain the great topics of physics in understandable language so that mere mortals like myself had a chance of grasping Relativity Theory and Quantum Physics. I don’t want to talk about “understanding” in this context, I lack the basic prerequisites for that. What still annoys me today is that Dürr was attacked and even despised for it by his scientific and rhetorically trained colleagues. He didn’t mind, since he had achieved everything there was to achieve in physics. He was a critical spirit in general and no longer cared much about the rules of an elite guild. Because in elites, an unwritten rule is unfortunately: to belong, you have to speak our language. This does not only apply to physicists.
Medical, legal, musical, artisanal, ornithological and consulting guilds also have their own language. Speaking one’s own “jargon” makes understanding and comprehension easier, especially among one’s peers. Others outside the clique are excluded unless they have become accustomed to the terms. As long as I am aware that I am excluding people, I can change it if I want to.
The Chair of Communication at the University of Hohenheim, regularly uses software to investigate how clear the language of German corporate leaders is.3 They invented the so-called Hohenheim Intelligibility Index, or HIX for short.4 It would appear that the German board members’ intelligibility has improved. The article says: “On the scale of the Hohenheim Intelligibility Index from 0 to 20, CEOs scored an average of 14.4 points – a good 4.6 more than in 2012.” There are masters of clear expression (example: Thimotheus Höttges, Deutsche Telekom) but also terrible “linguistic garblers” (bringing up the rear: Aldo Belloni, Linde).
Expressing oneself intelligibly has something to do with attitude. If I really want to live an attitude, I have to ensure I am understood. Here are three examples from the article5 of how to make your language more comprehensible:
Use short sentences and avoid endless sentence constructions.
Avoid the passive voice and making nouns out of verbs (“substantivisation” – see what they mean?).
Avoid technical terms if you want to reach a wider audience than just your professional colleagues.
And finally: It took some experimentation before the researchers discovered the second dimension of time mentioned in the title of this article. Actually, they were researching something completely different and only realised the significance of their discovery for quantum computers at a later stage. One of the scientists described this process with the words: “It just didn’t work. Completely incomprehensible stuff came out of it.” Exactly, nothing to add to that.
Original text: HFI
English translation: BCO